Season One is set in the late 1950s, and the story centres around Don Draper and his colleagues at Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency on Madison Avenue. Set in a world where the men wear the (gloriously tailored) trousers, whilst women are seen as the bit of’ ‘skirt’ on the side, Mad Men brilliantly brings to life a golden era in terms of fashion and pop culture – though rife with sexism, racism and class divides.
This series is stylish, sexy and smart, as well as bursting with irony and the cast is superb. Jon Hamm, is the suave and sophisticated Don Draper, the golden boy of the advertising world. His character is deeply flawed with numerous affairs, yet he is still a likeable hero. His wife Betty is played by the beautiful and delicate January Jones, who oozes class and is the ultimate all-American housewife, looking immaculate at all times, whilst nursing demons such as anxiety and a personality complex which sees her episode-by-episode trying to break out of her role and become a modern woman. This is something she struggles with as her role as 50s housewife is so ironically defined by men such as her husband in the advertising industry. Her husband sells consumers the ‘American Dream’ but this remains an elusive fantasy in his own home.
Betty exists in a bubble along with all of the other housewives on the street, and their gossip is vacuous and dull, yet fascinating to us as viewers as we try to comprehend how they put up with their existence. This peek into 1950s suburbia is realistic, and not saturated with soap opera-like scandal. Other office wives such as Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie) are also clearly unhappy with their ‘perfect’ lives, as she longs for a baby from a man who’d rather spend his time having an affair.
Another key female character is Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who enters as the new girl in episode one. Peggy represents naivety at the beginning, becoming more sure of herself as the series progresses until the final shocking revelation in the last episode of Season One. Her character is modest and shy, and she clearly does not fit into the world of Manhattan, but as she begins to learn how the sexual politics of the office work, Peggy shines as the first female copy writer the office has ever seen.
The men in the office remind the viewer of a bunch of high school jocks, all from rich families and all of whom attended the best Universities that money could buy. Most of their time seems to be spent smoking or drinking, and very little work ever seems to get done, which demonstrates the inequality in the office, and in a wider sense, the class divides of Manhattan: juxtapose the ‘Mad Men’ with the African-American housekeeper of the Draper household, and we see who really earns their wages.
Interestingly, having played a PS3 game called L.A Noir I noticed that a number of the cast actually lent their faces and well as their voices to the characters in the game, including Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell and Aaron Staton’s Ken Cosgrove. My favourite among the ‘Mad Men’ is Salvatore Romano (Bryan Bratt), whom every girl in the office is in love with due to his glamorous appearance, despite this signalling something else to the viewer, which I hope will be explored further in the Seasons to come. Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) and Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) make up the rest of the crew, with Paul becoming an entertaining cliché of a beatnik towards the end of the Season.
The name-sakes of the firm, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) are also great characters. Cooper has a number of amusing idiosyncrasies including making people remove their shoes before entering his Japanese-inspired office, and Sterling is the classic hard-nosed businessmen, lying and cheating to maintain his status.
Although the women of the office, such as Christina Hendricks’ Joan and Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy are objectified by the ‘Mad Men’, they also exude a certain power sexually. The men seem to think they are in control, but it is refreshing to see how the female characters in the Sterling Cooper office use their looks and charms to manipulate their superiors and this marks the beginning of the sexual revolution. The series ends significantly in 1960 and we see the clear divide between the modern and the old-fashioned: people like Betty reside safely within their roles, whilst other characters begin to explore drugs, new fashions, and new relationships.
The style of the series has got to be one of its top selling points: the clothes worn by each and every character are astounding, and any costume designer would kill to be working on a show like this one. Betty’s dresses are always beautifully classic, and she is constantly compared to Grace Kelly, whilst Joan wears sexy, figure hugging shift dresses, and exudes feminine allure. The men’s suits are beautifully tailored and every character looks like they’ve stepped off a fashion shoot at all times – this, however, is not unrealistic in a business world where appearance is everything.
A brilliant first Season, and one I am looking forward to following all the way to the end. Mad Men achieves style and substance, a rare combination in such admirable quantities.